Wednesday, January 17, 2018

But what, Senator?

 The last time in recent memory that someone boasted about her facility with the English language was when Fay-Ann Lyons defended her husband’s “feels like I’m in a red light district” by mistakenly referring to the simile therein as a metaphor.

The singer demonstrated the dangers that lurk like wily rodents when those with a competent, perfunctory knowledge of the language announce their know-how, unaware that those who do have a superior grasp of the thing do not so announce. 

You would not, for example, hear Martin Daly boast that he is an eminent member of the bar, Dr Terrence Farrell that he is a fine economist or Reginald Dumas that he is fluent in French.

All languages are to some extent arbitrary; why, for example, is a cat not called a meow and a rat a squeak? When one boasts about one’s competence with language, one leaves a door wide open for that arbitrariness to scuttle in, bringing unruliness to that which is rules-based.

So announcements like the one made by PNM Senator Camille Robinson-Regis are always ill-advised and often betray an insecurity that belies the boast.

Language is a tool; were Senator Robinson-Regis possessed of the knowledge she proclaims, that tool would have been employed in the Senate to dig herself and her party out of the hole into which they fell with eyes wide shut. Instead, she dug a deeper pit by labelling as rats the prominent nationals who had, by the time of the Senate sitting, wrapped their minds around the two obscene pension bills and issued eloquent, detailed perspectives on them.

Indeed, so persuasive and rational were the perspectives by Daly, Dumas and Farrell that Senator Robinson-Regis could not counter them. Instead, she reached for Elbert Hubbard—If you can’t answer a man’s arguments, all is not lost; you can still call him vile names. If parliamentary reporters thought the Senator had no counter-argument to proffer, they were right. When a debater resorts to name-calling, she has nothing left in the think tank.

Presentations in the Senate, I hope, are prepared in advance so Senator Robinson-Regis attended that night’s sitting prepared to say what she did; it was not inadvertent, off-the-cuff or spontaneous. It was likely predetermined. It was also not in the cut and thrust of the Senate debate because there was no debate and the gentlemen to whom she was referring were neither cutting nor thrusting in the Senate on that day. Cut and thrust has become a carte blanche excuse for the inexcusable and the Senator invoked the term as such in her apology.

Perhaps Senator Robinson-Regis was emboldened by her Government counterpart, Senator Ganga Singh, except he was smart; Senator Singh used the verb “scurrying” to describe the Salaries Review Commission’s approach to the President. Suggestive at worse but Senator Robinson-Regis, not known for subtlety and suggestion, maybe grasped the indication and rendered it as a direct invective.

Then there is the matter of basic vocabulary. PNM political leader and the only Opposition member to address these bills in the Lower House, Dr Keith Rowley, described his Senator’s apology as “unreserved.” It was not. Both Dr Rowley and Senator Robinson-Regis are familiar with the conjunction “but” but do they know it is a contrastive device and as such will not feature in an “unreserved apology”?

“I think it is a little unfortunate that the, and I am going to use the word again, the unfortunate statement in the heat of the debate, in the cut and thrust, has overshadowed...I ask for the forgiveness of the public because I am not known to speak like that. But it has been an emotive subject,” the Senator told the Express.

It is lamentable that the overused “unfortunate” also featured repeatedly in the Senator’s boast about her language skills. I have long wanted to suggest alternatives. Here are some, generated by a simple online search: regrettable, inappropriate, unsuitable, inapt, tactless, infelicitous, untoward, injudicious, unforgivable, unflattering, ill-advised, unbecoming, and deplorable.

The Senator’s reference to her language awareness was not accidental; she was apologising for her diction, not her sentiment. So Daly, Dumas, Farrell et al are still deserving of verbal bashing, just not in those words, demonstrating that the Senator and her party remained unskilled in resiling from untenable positions that they adopt.

I hope Winston Dookeran’s new school of politics teaches a course on how to debate issues without resorting to ad hominem attacks, how to apologise unreservedly, how to avoid using “unfortunate” and “cut and thrust,” how not to blame the media when it’s your own boo-boo, how to listen to the views of non-office holders without disparaging them, and how to retreat from positions with humility and sincerity. Your error, Senator, was not only in language but also in sentiment.